11-year-old Saga Bergmann lives in the German town of Muhlenburg with her grandmother Regina. Her parents are dead, but Saga has kept her feet firmly on the ground. She's intelligent and meticulous. She works part-time in a coffee shop and plans her life down to the minute, sustaining her memories of her mother by playing their old piano. Saga's mother was a professional pianist and since Saga does nothing by half-measures, by now she's also superb.
Sugar is an apprentice Snow Fairy, learning how to control the weather and the seasons. She's staggered to find that Saga can see her, which is unheard-of in humans, so naturally Sugar sets up home into Saga's bedroom. At this many girls would go into squealing cuteness overload. Saga however regards Sugar much like a flying freeloading rat. It's going to be a stormy relationship.
You know how some shows grab you within seconds and you know immediately that you'll love them? This is not such a show. The first five episodes left me unimpressed. They're not dramatic. Saga goes to school and tries to ignore the fairies, in particular Sugar and her friends Pepper (a Wind Fairy) and Salt (a Sun Fairy). They chat. They eat. They play musical instruments. This isn't a plot-based show but instead entirely reliant on its characters, which looked ominous since the cast struck me as vapid. People are nice, but with at best one personality trait apiece. Greta's the Rich Rival. Phil's the Schoolboy Inventor... and that's about it for the humans. The fairies are slightly more distinctive, but not by much. Pepper's a Girlie Girl and Salt's a Brash Boy. I was rolling my eyes.
Those first five episodes had me ready to throw away my discs, but episode six caught my interest. Saga and Sugar had never got on, but in this episode they fight. Note that I'm not talking about the usual "ho ho ho" spat, forgiven and forgotten long before the closing credits. They'd been talking about their mothers, who in Sugar's case represented her life's ambition and in Saga's case was dead. Suddenly the central relationship surprised me. The characters had found depth. What's more, the fact that they basically didn't get along made their moments of reconciliation all the more sweet instead of saccharine.
Soon afterwards, to my astonishment, I was hooked. After a weak beginning the Sugar-Saga relationship becomes honest and real, which in turn grounds the entire series. Each learns from the other. Saga doesn't want to get emotionally involved with Sugar but can't help herself, despite the fact that the fairy is a pain in the neck. She throws tantrums, she pesters Saga for food items larger than herself and she's ignorant of absolutely everything, so is always asking questions. She's physically toddler-like, with a huge head and chubby limbs. Saga finds herself playing mother, to which role she's naturally suited even though she doesn't want it in the slightest. She's unforgiving and judgemental. She assumes responsibilities and gets annoyed when others don't do the same. In many ways she's like a busy mother who doesn't have time for her daughter but can't stop worrying about her anyway.
It's significant that Saga's own mother is deceased. Saga softens over the course of the series, becoming less snappy and more relaxed. However just as the two become truly attached to each other, Sugar becomes a full-fledged Season Fairy and must leave never to return. It's melancholic, but in a good way. Again this show finds a little darkness to emphasise the sweetness and make it real, especially if you go on to watch the Summer Special set four years later in which Saga is remembering what's been and gone.
The production side of the show is delightful. Muhlenburg is based on the real town of Rothenberg, Germany, which the Japanese animators actually visited as part of their research. The backgrounds are watercolours, like a children's storybook. It's adorable. Meanwhile the music is a huge component of the show, both as incidental music and in the story itself since most of the characters are musicians. The fairies control the weather with music. Sugar has a piccolo, Pepper a harp and Salt a trumpet, while other fairies have violins, cellos, cymbals and drums. Music creates some of the show's most beautiful moments, although when appropriate they're not afraid to dump the classical stuff and go for synthesisers and electric guitars. Oh, and after initially being unimpressed I ended up falling in love with the theme music and watching the opening credits twice every time I put on an episode. (I've since discovered that it's a Japanese version of Sugar Baby Love from 1974 by the Rubettes.)
My only grumble involves wildlife. Whenever we hear animals, they're obviously human actors making no attempt to sound like real creatures. Admittedly this might have been deliberate, for the sake of the kiddies. Cats or crows might eat a fairy. It's still annoying, though.
Another interesting character is Greta, despite the fact that at first glance she seems desperately one-note. She amused me at first, with her self-important challenges, but soon became dull. She was just an airhead who never learned, I thought, every week setting herself up for ever-more predictable come-uppances. However as the show developed, she too surprised me. Apparently the production team became really fond of her, seeing a good heart under that obnoxious exterior, and in the end they let her redeem herself.
A travelling theatre troupe turn up for a run of four episodes so good that the Summer Special's a kind of sequel. Curiously, part fifteen is so ridiculous that it could have killed the show for me had it been scheduled nearer the beginning... and yet I kinda liked it. Sugar and her friends attempt something absurd even for them: teaching a turtle to fly. Then the show starts digging at Saga. Episode nineteen gets nostalgic about the series itself as the end approaches, with Sugar and Saga reminiscing about their adventures together. However Saga's about to get a kick in the teeth concerning her mother's piano. It's not afraid to be harsh, which is the hidden secret of this show.
Crucially, they get the ending right. It's emotional and autumnal, but also somehow uplifting. I really liked it, especially when I reflected on how far both the show and its characters had travelled since those rough early episodes. There's real character development here. Then the Summer Special builds on that melancholic tone while simultaneously telling a flashback story that's sweet and funny, which is particularly impressive given how often sequels just undermine the original.
This is blatantly a show for girlies. Just look at it. Pastel colours, huge twinkly eyes, cute little fairies... it's freakin' adorable. What's more, nothing much really happens. Sugar barges her way into Saga's life and then eventually goes away again. It's a show about its characters and how they grow and affect each other. That's part of why its first few episodes feel aimless, but it's also why in the end it's lovely.